Dentistry, leadership and nurturing environment. Do all these words really go together in one thought? I don’t know anyone, other than my daughter, who loves going to the dentist. Most people hate going, perhaps because they fear needles, pain, the drill sound or just the unknown.
I myself had a really bad experience about eight years ago. The dentist I had been going to retired, and someone bought his practice. At that time, I had been going to the practice for probably about fifteen years so I stayed and went to “the new guy.” After one or two visits, he discovered a cavity, which I don’t recall having in the previous fifteen years. Here is where it gets hairy.
Ever since I was two years old, I have had an aversion to needles. I was hospitalized with pneumonia and had so many shots of penicillin that it created a hole in my skin and in my psyche. Since then I was terrified of needles. Today, although not pleasant, I can tolerate a poke in the arm. My mouth is a different situation – I’m a sensitive type and have a sensitive nervous system. Even though I practice yoga, and have strengthened it, it’s still sensitive.
But at this time, I had not yet developed a consistent yoga practice and when I went to “the new guy” to fill my cavity, here is what happened: He gave me a shot in my gums. I don’t remember being given a local anesthetic and I don’t remember feeling particularly numb after the injection. When he started to drill, it really hurt. I tried to bear it. Pain is a relative thing. How does one really, objectively know their tolerance for pain? I always say that, even though I am sensitive, I must have a fairly high level of tolerance since, after all, “I gave birth to my daughter without medication.” Shouldn’t that count for some kind of hero’s acknowledgement? It certainly wasn’t a cakewalk and required perseverance, stamina and a gritty will.
Back to the drill. After a while, it was so unbearable, and I felt so vulnerable – there with my mouth open and unable to speak – that I started to groan in agony. The dentist had many options at that point. Here is what he did: he said, “You can feel that?”
What did he think, I was groaning for jollies?
I said, “Yes, I can.”
“You can’t feel that. You shouldn’t be able to feel that.”
“Well I can.”
I don’t remember what happened after that – if he gave me another shot or not. What I do remember is I felt traumatized and shamed. It was a small office and when I walked out, I felt people, including the receptionist, looking at me since they could hear my groans. Was I a baby?
Here is what I did: I wrote a letter to the dentist about my experience – what it felt like for me in his chair. I encouraged him to think differently about how he practiced. I told him I was leaving the practice and I never went back. I sought a holistic dentist who replaced half of my mercury fillings (all paid for out of pocket!) without the trauma. I didn’t do anymore as it was costly and I didn’t want to upset more mercury in my mouth.
A year later, I asked around and had a friend refer me to a dental practice that was covered by my insurance. I have been going to this practice for seven years now. On my first visit, I told the dentist about my previous experience and what I was looking for. She listened and gave me all the time in the world. On subsequent visits, the hygienist does most of the work and the dentist comes in to check – and always with a smile and something upbeat to say. In this timeframe I have only had one small cavity until last week when I needed a crown. I have never had anything other than cavities so I was nervous over this procedure.
I am writing about this today because I had an extraordinary experience that shifted my previous trauma and sense of being taken care of. What happened in this practice is unbelievable.
On the day of my crown, I made it clear how sensitive and nervous I was and reminded the dentist of my traumatic incident. They walked me through in detail everything they were going to do. They handled this procedure so differently than that day eight years ago. First, they gave me a local gel anesthetic before putting a needle in my mouth. Then, they used an instrument, not their judgment, to gauge my level of pain. After giving me a couple of shots of Novocain, they placed an instrument on my tooth, and had me place my hand on the instrument with the doctor’s so I was in control. I could pull it away when I started to feel it. The way my system works, I didn’t do that but raised a leg instead. The doctor got the message. This instrument had a measure and I had to get up to a score of 80 before they felt it was safe to start to drill. They were surprised, but not upset about how long it took. She kept giving me small dosed shots of Novocain, waiting and checking on my level of sensation. I lost track after six shots. Finally I was ready.
Before they started to drill the dental assistant suggested I could use my iPod. I put in my earplugs and they started to drill. The high pitch of the drill affected me. No problem. She gave me a heavy set of headphones. I turned up my yoga music, closed my eyes and breathed deeply. A couple of times I had a moment of sensation. They stopped. My eyes started to tear. I couldn’t help it. A couple of times I apologized for taking so long and being “such a project.” It also helped that I had my partner there who rubbed my feet during most of the procedure.
The reaction from the dentist and dental assistant was, “no need to apologize. You are just sensitive.” It wasn’t, “you are too sensitive.” It is what it is. They said, “This isn’t bad. There are people who are worse. You just have a hot tooth. It’s not happy. It’s okay.”
A procedure I was told would take ninety minutes took three hours. No complaints or attitude from anyone in the office – just understanding and patience. This was healing for me on so many levels. The entire atmosphere felt accepting and nurturing. I never thought I would use that word for a dentist, but I do. Even the staff in the office were so pleasant, helping me navigate the last month of my dental insurance.
I was so touched when I left that I hugged the dental assistant and the dentist. I now do not have the same sense of dread for future procedures. Because my nerves were tended to with care, I have a lot of nerve for next time.
I also reflected on all of my experiences with this office over time and decided that an office doesn’t just get this way by itself. This is an environment that is set and cultivated by the doctors – the dentists and leaders of the practice are the ones who set the tone. There is a pervasive sense of friendliness and that they are there for the patients and that they really care. Care is the operative word. It’s the water everyone is swimming in, and it’s infectious. I am overwhelmed with gratitude.
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